Boy's death spurs dental home bill in Congress

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering HR 2371, Deamonte's Law, which its sponsor says would establish a dental home for every American child by increasing dental services in community health centers and training more people in pediatric dentistry.

The bill's primary sponsor is Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who drafted it after the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who died in 2007 when a tooth infection spread to his brain. "A routine dental checkup might have saved his life," Mr. Cummings says, "but Deamonte was poor and homeless and he did not have access to a dentist. When I learned of this senseless tragedy, I was deeply shaken. I simply cannot comprehend how, in this country where we have sent a man to the moon, we let a little boy's teeth rot so badly that his infection became fatal. To be clear, Deamonte's case was rare and extreme. However, even the most casual investigation reveals that children across the country are living with painful untreated tooth decay, many of them dangerously close to acquiring life-threatening infections."

The congressman says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that tooth decay is the single most common childhood chronic disease and that it disproportionately affects poor and minority children.

The bill, he says, would ensure that children have access to dental services in the communities where they live, through the community health centers that provide a health care safety net to underserved areas such as rural and urban communities. The bill would establish a five-year, $5 million pilot program to provide funds for dentists, equipment, and construction for dental services at community health centers. It also would provide support for contracts between health centers and private practice dentists.

A second part of the bill would address the dentist shortage in the United States by establishing a five-year, $5 million pilot program to enhance training and academic programs in pediatric dentistry, recruit and train dentists to study pediatrics, and provide continuing education for practicing dentists.